Renovations at the Episcopal Church were the original reason why the 2008-09 season of Chamber Music at St. Peter’s was moved three blocks southwest to the First Presbyterian Church. The changes seem to have been codified for the 2009-10 season of First Tuesday Concerts. Now in its fourteenth season, the monthly series is presented under the banner of Charlotte Chamber Music, with lunchtime concerts discreetly moved from 12:10 to 1:00 p.m., followed by after-work repeats at their customary 5:30 p.m.
Whether the organization has gotten more religion in their transition will be beside the point for music lovers. The rechristened series has certainly benefited from an upgrade in acoustics. Music at St. Peter’s had a diffuse, warmed-over resonance even if you sat at the front of the long sanctuary. Sonics at First Presbyterian are cool, but not objectionably so, with a sharpness that can hardly be surpassed in a studio. The hall is brighter, and the seats more comfortable than the pre-renovated St. Pete. Performers are on a choir loft a healthy distance above the audience, providing an added benediction of visibility. If I’d known how dramatic the upgrade truly was, I would have been a regular at the free concerts as soon as they relocated.
With American premieres highlighting two of the first three monthly concerts of 2009-10, the Charlotte Chamber Music series is growing more adventurous in its repertoire. There’s a noticeable Davidson influence on content and presentation, with two of the three members of the new advisory committee having ties to the university town 20 miles north of Charlotte. Henry Lebdinsky, who played organ at the December concert, is director of music at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, and Benjamin Roe is the general director of the area’s classical music station WDAV-FM, which broadcasts from the Davidson College campus and aired this concert live on 89.9FM and at its website.
WDAV announcer Mike McKay, who emceed the concert, did not neglect to inform his audience that these were likely the premiere American performances of the flute Concerto in D by Josef Myslivecek (1737-81). Lebdinsky, at another microphone, was highly informative about Mozart’s Czech contemporary, the high regard Mozart had for him, and the tragic arc of Myslivecek’s career which peaked in high celebrity and nosedived into syphilis. Beyond the fact that it was the composer’s only concerto for the instrument, McKay and Lebdinsky had little to say about the piece – or the size of the orchestra it was originally written for. Here it was done by a sextet that included Gesa Kordes on first violin, Michael Albert on second violin, Joey O’ Donnell on viola, Brian Howard on cello, and Lebdinsky.
The soloist, 16-year-old Sarah Sullivan, was technically astonishing with a radiant tone and an aptitude for supple phrasing that was most telling in the middle Andante mezza voce movement. In the outer allegro movements, Sullivan sounded slightly tentative when she first entered but utterly secure and involved from her second solo onwards. The augmented string quartet members behind her were vivacious advocates on behalf of the music, Kordes contributing a delightful little solo patch just before Sullivan made her first appearance. Overall, the music had a likable buoyancy that ought to attract more performers to it. When that happens, the chief weakness in the piece can be addressed: the cadenzas in all three movements charm us without ever dazzling. Surely the flute virtuosos of our day can devise better displays for those expectant moments where Myslivecek’s orchestra peels away.
Sullivan withdrew for the second half of the program – but not completely. She and her teacher, Shirley Gilpin, formed a flute section, joining the organist and the string quartet up on the choir loft to accompany soprano Melanie Russell in Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate. The reduced orchestral forces balanced deliciously with Russell’s honeyed voice. Obviously at the dawn of a bright career, Russell’s firm control of coloratura passages was swiftly manifested in the title aria, along with her felicitous ability to trill. When the music slowed for the “Tu virginum corona,” high notes were tender and creamy; low passages, if undistinguished, were pleasingly smooth. Russell’s breath control seemed as effortless here as in the “Exsultate,” with artful phrasing. Here and there an underpowered syllable might crop up along with some fuzzy articulation. Russell never did make up her mind on how to pronounce the final vowel of “affectus” in the “Virginum.”
But there was no indecisiveness to Russell’s attack in the concluding “Alleluja.” If anything, her confidence seemed to grow in the face of its challenges. Pure joy radiated from Russell’s coloratura, and she crowned her bravura with a final high note that was exultant and triumphant. It was an exhilarating hour.